Did you know your body type has a lot more to it than just what size jeans you can fit into or how your body’s metabolism works?
In TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine), we look at the outward signs of someone’s body to give us insight into what’s going on inside.
Every person and every body is different. What feels good for one person, won’t feel good for someone else, be it diet, lifestyle or workload. So when we’re looking at optimizing health or helping someone heal, we want to look at their particular state of health or balance and then help from there.
When we talk about body types, we can very generally break them down into different categories or types. Most people will have a mix of a few different ‘types’, and if you have any specific health problems it’s best to seek out the guidance of a qualified practitioner as there is a lot more to TCM than just this. But, very generally, if we can help identify a persons particular body type or pattern, we can then work on foods and lifestyles that will help to heal and balance them instead of working against them.
Some of the general body types that we can break things down into and I will touch on here are: Hot, Cold, Dry, Damp and Stuck
How do you identify your body type?
A lot of Chinese Medicine is actually quite intuitive and it evolved over thousands of years by actually observing people in their natural environment and seeing what patterns emerged. So when we talk about the various body types, and break it down, a lot of the signs or symptoms are quite obvious. For example someone who would be classified as a ‘hot’ type would typically feel hot all the time. They might have a red face or be flushed often. They might suffer from sweats or be abnormally hot in a room when other people are cold. Temperament wise, they might be ‘hot headed’ or quick to anger, they might be thirsty all the time or have a dry mouth. This is the person in shorts or a t-shirt in the middle of winter or a tank top in a room full of people wearing sweaters. This type might also be prone to hot flushes or night sweats. The excess heat comes from either having too much heat in the body (yang), or not enough cool (yin) to balance out the heat. The latter is someone who would more experience the flush of heat as opposed to being hot all the time.
Someone who is classified as cold would be just the opposite of the hot type. These people might be abnormally cold (the people wearing sweaters and socks in the peak of summer), they might be cold to the touch and have a complexion that is on the paler side. This would be someone who feels their whole body is cold, NOT just their hands and feet (that’s another pattern mentioned below). These people might also have aches or pains that feel better when heat is applied or constantly feel the need to wear socks and flannel pj’s to bed.
Someone who is dry would show ‘dry’ symptoms – dry skin, dry eyes, thirst, women may have a scanty period, they might suffer from things like hang nails and dry lips to name a few. Dry people may also tend towards constipation with dry or hard stools. Very often types are combined and it’s not uncommon for someone to be dry and hot together. Just think of what excessive heat does to any moisture like in the desert – it dries it up.
Another type would be ‘damp’ – damp conditions are very similar to what you’d think of when you think of something that is damp or waterlogged. Often these people feel heavy (heavy limbed, heavy headed), they are tired after they eat and might have foggy thinking. They may get bloated easily or suffer from oedema or have other swellings in the body. These people might have a very hard time loosing weight. They may also be prone to congestion or have a lot of phlegm or mucus. Basically ‘damp’ types have a harder time with water metabolism and processing it. It’s very similar to if you soak something in water – it expands and becomes heavier than if it is dry (like a towel being soaked in water, it’s a lot heavier to lift).
And another type is stuck. This relates more to the circulation in the body and when things are not moving as well as they should. This may show up in people as irritability, impatience, or even when people sigh a lot. People who have a lot of tension headaches or women who have very painful periods with clots or who suffer from pms, irritability or have swollen sore breasts before their period tend to be the ‘stuck’ type. The stuck person may also suffer from cold hands and feet, as the energy is stuck in their body and not able to travel well to the extremities. Overall, this pattern shows up with things aren’t moving or circulating as well as they should be.
So when we’re looking at how to balance someone out and help to heal, we look at foods and lifestyle as well as herbal medicine to help bring things back into balance.
Foods and herbs, in addition to nutritional value, also have ‘’properties”. So what this means is that foods are naturally cooling or warming, moistening or drying, and some herbs or foods will help to move or circulate the energy better than others. When we look at herbs and foods in this way, we can actually highlight certain foods for someone to focus on and they can be used to help balance someone out and exclude certain ones that might be sending them more off balance. For example, if someone is a ‘hot’ type, we can exclude naturally hot foods (like chili peppers, spicy foods, coffee and black pepper) and highlight more cooling foods (such as cucumbers, tomatoes, peppermint etc.) to help balance them out and feel better.
Some foods that can help:
So if you’re a “hot” type, foods that are naturally cooling would be a great addition to your diet. Foods grown in the summer such as tomatoes, cucumber, leafy lettuce, tofu, mung beans and peppermint. Try to avoid cooking foods for too long and have lightly steamed or cooked. The hot types will often do well with vegetable juices or smoothies (try to avoid frozen ones though), and try to avoid any pungent spicy foods like chilli peppers or hot sauces.
For the ‘cold’ type, you want to highlight the warmer foods (think wintery spices like you’d find in chai tea or Indian curry). Spices like cinnamon, cloves, cumin, ginger are all good options. Foods that are cooked on a low heat for a long time are particularly good for the person who is cold all the time. Cold types really need to avoid any frozen or cold foods or anything raw like salads as it’s too hard on their body to digest and will just add more cold into their system.
‘Damp’ types do very well with bitter foods. Things like celery, turnip, aduki beans, amaranth, alfalfa, pumpkin and chamomile are all good. This pattern should definitely avoid things like dairy products, tofu, too many eggs or very sweet foods as all of those tend to be moistening foods and can contribute to more dampness in the body which can make things feel worse.
Dry types are just the opposite from the damp type and would actually do well with the moistening foods listed above like dairy products, eggs, non-gmo soy products. Adding in foods like spinach, seaweeds, pears and naturally sweet foods like honey are also helpful as they help to moisten the dryness. Avoiding drying bitter foods is also helpful or spicy hot food if you’re a dry and hot mixed type.
And finally the ‘stuck’ type. For the stuck, perhaps irritable or tense type, foods that move the energy are ideal. Foods from the onion family are great (leeks, onion, shallots etc.), mint, spices such as turmeric, basil, bay leaf, fennel or dill are all helpful. Foods from the brassica family like turnip root, cabbage, kohlrabi, broccoli and brussels sprouts are also great options. Vinegars such as apple cider vinegar or rice vinegar are a great thing to add to foods as they really help to ‘move’ the energy. Adding a small amount of honey to drinks can also be helpful. Stuck types also do well with lighter smaller meals avoiding over eating or eating in a hurry (which is actually good for all types). This type also does very well with movement, so any type of exercise or activity would be helpful in getting things moving and unstuck.
TCM is a complex and in-depth medicine so it’s always advisable to seek out the help of a qualified practitioner for a more personalize plan, but I hope the previous information, although just a tiny peak into the philosophy of TCM, will offer some insight into your own personal state of health and some food for thought on ways to help yourself feel better.
Update: To learn more about the ‘stuck’ type and modifying food for the spring visit http://angelawarburton.wordpress.com/2014/05/05/spring-optimize-your-health-through-the-seasons/